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Wednesday, 16 March 1966

Mr BEATON (Bendigo) .- We have been listening to the honorable member for Chisholm (Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes). We have heard, in effect, the same old story as we have heard before. I feel that he would agree that his remarks would have sounded better if the gentleman he speaks so often about, Mao Tse-tung, had not been during the chill of early spring in China wearing woollen undies made from Australian wool and if his people had not been eating wheat produced in Australia; and, indeed, if his armed forces has not been using missiles and weapons produced from rut'ile mined on Australian beaches. I feel sure he would have been a lot more comfortable in making his speech had this been the case. The honorable member and I have the same aims of promoting and preserving democracy. This means, in my view, the containment of Communism, but it is obvious that we differ strongly on the means of achieving this. I regret that in years to come generations of Australians will have to live down the follies of today's Government. Where people suffer from substandard living conditions and oppression, with no prospect of improving their con.ditions. no amount of armed intervention will prevent 'their trying some other form of government which promises better things. For years in South Vietnam a series of unrepresentative regimes made no attempt whatever to change the old order of things. Some of today's leaders in South Vietnam have frankly confessed to this fact. As a consequence, a large proportion of the people has chosen to change by force the type of government.

In other countries - India for example - the same process is under way. The people have been disillusioned by the degrading conditions under which they are forced to live. Their patience has been tried to the limit. Democracy must produce results, in India particularly, or it falls. It is performance in these matters that counts. Democracy must produce the goods. It must provide a better living standard for the people. If it does not, the people will reach for some other form of government that promises these things, notwithstanding that those promises may be false.

I wish only that the Australian Government was as ready to aid India as it is to send troops to South Vietnam. India's need is great. In the short term it has an urgent need of food. I am glad that after some pushing and prodding the Government has seen fit to make a gift of food to India but India needs, in addition, technical aid for her farms and factories and capital to develop the country. It is important that these needs be met, because in my opinion India, together with Singapore and Malaya, is one of the last real bastions of democracy in Asia. In our own interests as well as those of humanity, we should help more. The honorable member for Chisholm has the same aims as I but we differ strongly as to the means of doing things. In my opinion, the honorable member has the wrong attitude but, to his credit, he is sincere and, at least, he is consistent.

One thing that has disturbed me in recent times has been the tendency among some Government supporters to deny other people in the community the right to hold and express views different from those of the Government. I believe that everybody in Australia has the right to express any view. Democracy thrives on debate and discussion. If Government supporters have not actually denied, or tried by restrictive legislation to deny, anybody the right to have a differing point of view they have sought to silence others with the cry of disloyalty and lack of patriotism. How inflated can your ego get? The view behind this attitude of Government supporters is that they are the only people who can be right. Such an attitude consitutes a danger to democracy itself. I defend the right of the Opposition - in fact anybody - to differ from the Government. Just as I concede that honorable members opposite sincerely hold the views that they express, they should give us the credit for being sincere about our views, notwithstanding that they differ from those of Government supporters.

We are debating a statement made by the Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Holt), which was widely billed as a " state of the nation " address. I certainly hope that the state of the nation is better than the address, because the address was surely one of the longest and most dreary statements that this Parliament has had to endure for a long time. I approve the principle that Prime Ministers should regularly acquaint Parliament and the people with the facts relating to affairs at home and abroad but the state ment that we are now debating did nothing but scuttle the Prime Minister's endeavour to depict his Government as something new on the political scene. I regret that the Opposition is forced to look at the old faces and to hear the old voices and ideas. Having heard the Prime Minister last week I am convinced that the former Government's laissez-faire policy of inaction and complacency will continue. As a document professing to be a review of the economic situation and of foreign affairs, the statement by the Prime Minister who for years was the Treasurer, was a complete and utter failure. No mention was made of a disturbing rise in consumer prices. Not one word was said about the sharp fall in motor vehicle sales or about the marked reduction in the consumption of steel. What was referred to by Sir Edgar Coles, Managing Director of G. J. Coles Ltd., as " almost a recession in retailing " likewise did not rate a mention; nor did the steady decline in activity on the stock exchange. If the Prime Minister is to make these state of the nation addresses, this Parliament and the people of Australia are entitled to a full and frank account of the situation. In my opinion the statement is certainly something less than that.

All of the factors I have mentioned, together with the matters conceded in the statement - the effects of the drought, the decline in home building and the substantial level of unemployment - add up to the inescapable conclusion reached by many leaders of business and industry in the community that action to stimulate internal demand and to increase consumer spending is necessary. This is action that I strongly advocate. The Australia and New Zealand Bank Limited recommends such a course of action. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister's statement was long on words and short on action. Apart from a small increase in the availability of finance for housing, announced today, no action along the lines suggested is contemplated. Yet by doing two things the Government could bring about a higher level of economic activity and right some of the injustices which now bring hardship to several sections of the community. The two required actions, as I see it, are to reduce indirect taxes on household items and to increase pensions paid to service, widow, age and other pensioners. Every average family, every pensioner and every other person unlucky enough to have to live on a fixed income or superannuation is aware of the continual rise in prices and living costs. For many people it is a desperate struggle to make ends meet. The average housewife has one comment: Where will it all end? Up and up go prices. In the 12 months ended December last the consumer price index rose by 13s. a week or 4.3 per cent, which is a higher percentage rise than in the case of the gross national product, where the increase was only 4 per cent. Since last December the snowballing effect of the drought, allied with rises associated with the conversion to decimal currency, has boosted prices enormously. I predict that the next consumer price index figures will reveal the greatest rise in decades. It is of no use the Government's saying that the conversion to decimal currency has not resulted in increased prices. It has. Fares, milk, bread, daily newspapers and so many other every day needs have increased in price since the introduction of decimal currency. The Government stands condemned for failing to safeguard the public, particularly those people unable to help themselves, such as the elderly and infirm living on fixed incomes and pensions.

The general rate pension has not been increased since August 1964. Anybody who denies that the position of general rate pensioners, which was precarious even in 1964, has not deteriorated almost to starvation level is, ostrichlike, hiding his head in the sand. Prices, rents, and local government charges for water, sewerage and general rates are reaching astronomical heights and are far beyond the means of these people. A few days ago, I visited an old lady who has been forced out of the family home in which she has lived for about 40 years. She has not been evicted in the sense .of being moved by force, but she cannot pay the municipal rates, including sewerage and water rates, as well as buy the things that she needs in order to live - the meat, bread, milk and so on. This is a tragic state of affairs- It surely requires immediate action. Something must be done urgently to alleviate the plight of pensioners and other people on fixed incomes. Surely no one could pretend that a pension rise would be inflationary - that terrible word that our former Treasurer and present Prime Minister was so careful about and that he worried so much about. Every cent of that rise would be spent on the essentials of life - on milk, bread and so on. As I said before, in the interests of the economy, and certainly in the interests of those who are suffering an injustice, pensions should be lifted. Likewise, a lowering of indirect taxation could benefit the community. Revenue raisings by taxation have been at a satisfactory level and receipts from loans have been higher than expected. Already this year the Commonwealth has raised $442 million in loans, against the Budget estimate of $420 million - an excess of $22 million in loan funds. So the Government has the means to take positive action to stimulate the economy, and it certainly should do so.

I want to say something now of the drought which has plagued Australia in recent times. There has been, of course, a marked reluctance exhibited by the Government, as the drought has progressed, in accepting its responsibility. The measures in operation up to now have resulted from the Government being probed and pushed into action and, of course, from complaints made by the States which have been affected. The magnitude of the drought, and its effects, have been wide ranging indeed. On a national level, the drought has meant a substantial loss of export income - a loss which we can ill afford. After all, our trading accounts have for years been balanced only with the aid of moneys borrowed or invested from abroad.

In New South Wales and Queensland alone, estimates indicate that 15 million sheep and 1,500,000 cattle have been lost in this drought. Obviously this loss of farming capital and, of course, of farming income, and the reduction in the demand for farming needs such as machinery and the like, have been reflected in the general economy. Other industries, even other primary industries not directly affected by the drought, have been hit, for instance, by drastic rises in fodder costs and so on. A classic example of one such industry is the poultry industry, an industry which has been through difficult times. It has had to face a rise of something like 15 per cent, in feed costs in recent months. That has been a big blow to this industry.

On a local level, towns in drought areas are severely depressed, with direct and indirect financial losses bringing severe reductions in business activity and employment. For the farmers and graziers directly affected, the drought comes as a personal tragedy. Because of the widespread national effects, the quickest possible return of these farmers and graziers to production is essential to the nation. Whether they can recover and, if so, how soon they can recover depend upon two things. The first, of course, is rain, with a good follow up at the right time. Naturally, the Commonwealth's jurisdiction does not reach as high as this. lt is obvious that when Tain falls, as it has, fortunately, in some areas, the farmers will need finance to re-stock, to renew pastures and generally to rehabilitate themselves.

The new measures to be taken by the Government, as announced in the Prime Minister's statement, have been hailed by Government members. I ask: What is there to cheer about? What do these measures constitute? They constitute loans - loans to farmers who are already in hock to the limit with their stock agents, their wool firms and their local storekeepers. Their credit is exhausted. To the farmers who have watched as their properties have dried up into dust and as their stock have died in hundreds and thousands - some have been forced to leave their properties - the Government offers loans that will hang a burden of debt around their necks for many years to come. It offers loans at interest rates calculated to make massive profits for the banks and other lending institutions - the Elder Smiths, the Goldsbrough Morts, and so on - interest rates which will make every farmer and grazier think twice before applying for the loan. Of course, for some, the prospect of this burden will be the last straw.

Having regard to the urgency of the situation, having regard to the fact that it is imperative in the nation's interest to restore lost productivity, I ask: Why is not a greater proportion of drought aid provided by direct grant? Why cannot the Commonwealth recognise the desperate plight of the stricken primary producers and their incapacity to shoulder more debts? Why cannot the Commonwealth be more generous in circumstances such as these? And, for the remainder of the finance needed, why cannot the Commonwealth provide money - at, say, 1 per cent.? Surely we do not have to use the private banker's approach in financial transactions like these at times like these. Many primary producers face ruin. Why should the Commonwealth permit, or even aid, the banks and the big pastoral agencies to make added profits? I notice that the Reserve Bank made £23 million profit last year. Of that profit, £500,000 was made in the rural credit section. I hope that accounts for the years to come will not show profits extracted from the drought stricken and, in many cases, poverty stricken farmers.

I fully approve - in fact I have urged it in this Parliament before - the establishment of long term low interest loan development funds for the farming community, but it seems to me to be terribly wrong that the taxpayers' money, or money loaned to the Commonwealth by the people, should be lent out at commercial rates of interest in circumstances like this. The restocking of our farmlands as they recuperate after rain is vital. I believe that the community, bearing in mind the effects upon it as a whole and the benefits which would flow, would not begrudge the sort of action I have been advocating here tonight.

I have only two or three minutes left. I want to refer to something that is of importance to this country. Indeed, it will be of increasing importance to the generations of Australians to come. I refer to foreign investment. In his statement, the Prime Minister gleefully noted the rapidity with which foreign financiers are visiting this country. Despite warnings from the Opposition, from even the Country Party and, of course, from many leaders of finance and industry, he still, in his own words, " looks forward confidently to this inflow continuing strongly ". He also said - our rate of growth has been greatly assisted by the savings of others who bring new industry, new techniques, new equipment and new skills to us.

If the Prime Minister and Government applied this test to all new capital I am sure the Labour Party would be happy. I refer to the test of new industry, new techniques, new equipment and new skills. This would mean selective control. If that test were applied, we would not permit the introduction of speculative capital, which comes in purely to make profits and gives us nothing in return. But I am afraid that so far as the Liberal Party is concerned, it is an open go.

And what of the Country Party? Here is a mystery indeed. The Leader of the Country Party (Mr. McEwen) makes forthright statements on foreign investment outside this House. He says that it is like selling a bit of the farm every day. But, of course, that is outside the House. When he returns to the House he is a different character altogether. He is a sort of split political personality, a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character. When he returns to the House he becomes the Deputy Prime Minister, not the Leader of the Country Party, and he then follows Liberal lines. His attitude then is: " As the Prime Minister has said . . . " I do not know whether the time will come when we will hear a speech outside from the Prime Minister, after which he will come into the House and say: " I was speaking as Leader of the Liberal Party, not as Prime Minister ".

I do not know what the Country Party feels about this. I have noticed that one of its members, an aspirant to Parliament, Sir William Gunn, was the agent for the sale of 15,000 square miles of country - a little bit of the farm - in Cape York Peninsula. That was a little bit of the farm to which the Leader of the Country Party refers. It was sold to foreign interests - American interests. That is certainly selling a little bit of the farm, and I think this aspect of our economy ought to be looked at by the Government. A change of attitude is certainly needed.

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